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Defending the Spread Offense: It Starts with Confusing the Quarterback

Pre-snap Defensive Alignment Disguises ‘Box’ Defenders


In the Box

Confuse the Quarterback Pre-Snap Read

Sean McCormick

The first step for defenses facing a spread offense is to make it difficult for the quarterback to determine how many defenders are in the tackle box.


The box is a football counting concept which represents the number of defensive players aligned in the area between the offensive tackles and about five yards deep from the line of scrimmage. The area normally encompasses a 10-yard wide by five-yard imaginary box.

Spread Offense 'Box' Rules

Quarterbacks are taught to count the number of defenders in the box to determine whether a run or pass play will work the best against what the defense is showing.

  1. If the defense shows six players or less in the box, the quarterback knows the offense now has a one-man advantage and knows such plays as the zone read or quarterback trap are likely to result in a positive gain.
  2. If the defense shows seven or more players in the box, the quarterback knows the offense has an advantage in the passing game and will stretch the defense vertically.

Disguising the Defense

Aligning defenders just outside the traditional tackle box will keep the quarterback from making the correct pre-snap read. The defensive scheme must include:

  • sending these players on a blitz, or positioning them in the 'box' at the snap of the ball.
  • dropping these players into pass coverage.

Stemming the Defense

The success of the spread offense has increased the pre-snap movement of defensive players. Called stemming, it means defensive players will move to areas during the quarterback's pre-snap read, and quickly adjust to be in the correct defensive position when the ball is snapped. This creates additional pressure on the quarterback, as well as the offensive line which must quickly adjust the blocking schemes.

Coaching Points

  1. When game planning, determine whether the opponent spreads the defense out to primarily run the ball or to set up the passing game.
  2. Take away the opponent's best rusher. Force the run game into the hands of the less talented backfield member.

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